Biography: “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt” by Edmund Morris

You can blame this one completely on Conan O’Brien.

See, over a month ago, I was watching the Ash Wednesday episode of Conan. I know it was the Ash Wednesday episode because the first guest that night was Pee Wee Herman, and he and the Conan gang put on a skit to tell the story of Ash Wednesday, where Pee Wee was an angel, Conan played Jesus, Andy Richter dressed up as the Devil, and then La Bamba (La Bamba!) came out dressed as an Easter egg, and also, Frankenstein was there. And at the end of the skit, still wearing his Jesus wig, Conan looks to Camera 2 and says, “Coming up next, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edmund Morris. [laughs loudly] God, I love my job.”

So Edmund Morris comes out and starts talking about Teddy Roosevelt. Apparently, this is the first title in a series of three that he’s written about our … uh … (quickly goes to Wikipedia) 26th president! He was our 26th President! Yes, I totally knew that, as my birthday is on the 26th of something! Don’t look at me like that.

Actually, go ahead and look at me like that. Because once I picked this up from the library (and directly after I went, “holy shit, this is 741 pages of Teddy’s life, and he doesn’t even get to be President in this one?!”) and started reading it, the major a-ha moment I took from this book is that I am not as smart as I think I am.

For instance: Theodore (he apparently didn’t like being called ‘Teddy,’ which I’m pretty sure I knew before-hand) attended Harvard. And as a freshman, he attended a political rally for a candidate named Hayes. And my first thought was, “Aw, that’s too bad – the first guy he backed didn’t make it.” Then, a few pages later, I read this:

About the time he turned nineteen in October 1877, Theodore was informed that his father had been appointed Collector of Customs to the Port of New York by President Hayes. [93]

And I stared at the page, confused, until I remembered five minutes later that yes, there was in fact, a President Hayes.

My next thought, which I uttered out loud and have taken as a new credo, was: “GODDAMN PUBLIC SCHOOL EDUCATION.”

(PS – it took me another five days to remember that it was Rutherford B. Hayes, which is ridiculous – “Rutherford” is my go-to fake middle name for my friend Brad when I get mad at him [“Bradley Rutherford {last name omitted}, DON’T leave your damn time-off requests on my damn keyboard!”])

And look, I don’t know about how your high school taught American History, but here’s how I learned it junior year:
– Our teacher took three class periods — three! — to tell us his life story, including is tour in ‘Nam, and how he only married his long-term girlfriend so they could buy a house
– A lot about the American Revolution and the ratification of the Constitution
– We watched The Star Chamber and Amistad
– Some junk about the … Reformation? Recombination? The stuff that happened to the South after Lincoln was shot. (back to Wikipedia) RECONSTRUCTION GODDAMN PUBLIC SCHOOL EDUCATION

But it’s difficult to remember that year, because ALL of our tests were open-book! I was not held responsible for knowing and/or retaining anything — I just needed to make sure I could find that piece of paper for that question! And then when I started taking English classes in college, I focused on the 19th Century British novel, not American liturature (which is why I know all about Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and some of the Renaissance and stuff with Cromwell and James). I can kind of talk about the Roaring Twenties and the Jazz Age (thanks, Great Gatsby), and I know that it was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand that began World War I, but other historic details from the 20th Century? If I haven’t seen the movie, then I don’t know it, because we never got past 1869 in American History back in High School.

For instance, other things that I probably should have known or may have known and forgotten:

The assassination of President Garfield was only the latest in a series of political explosions that shook America in the spring and summer of 1881… [147]

Being from Maine, I should have known that the James G. Blaine that was Roosevelt’s constant political opponent during the early part of the 1880s was the same Blaine that our governor’s mansion is named after. Dear Maine Studies teachers: isn’t that more important than studying the poems from Edna St. Vincent Millay again? Again?!

But enough about how dumb I am. For those like me who didn’t get to study Theodore Roosevelt in school, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt goes into incredible detail about his life leading up to his Presidency. The only President to be born on Manhattan island, Roosevelt was a force to be reckoned with throughout his life. He was originally interested in biology and science, and to my surprise, was able to perform taxidermy on animals from about the age of ten. He was a sickly child, and it seemed that he was always trying to overcompensate for it in later life.

He attended Harvard, intending to become a biologist of some sort. But a professor suggested that maybe he consider politics. Upon graduation, he began attending a local Republican meeting, and was elected Assemblyman in his first election. From there, his career rose meteorically.

Aside from politics, he was an avid reader and writer. In addition to daily correspondance, he wrote three or four biographies, four volumes of The Winning of the West, and his first book, a Naval history of the War of 1812, quickly became required reading for the U.S. Navy. He was always writing, and I especially loved this passage:

The sight of snow tumbling past his study window, and the sound of logs crackling in the grate, combined to produce that sense of calm seclusion a writer most prizes — when the pan seems to move across the paper almost of its own accord, and the words flow steadily down the nib, drying into whorls and curlicues that please the eye; when sentences have just the right rhythmic cadence, paragraphs fall naturally into place, and the pages pile up satisfyingly … [391]

Being a part-time writer (and a full-time frustrated writer), when I get into that grove, I do everything I can to not throw it off.

His many careers included: Assemblyman, rancher in South Dakota, Appointee to the Civil Service Commission (under President Harrison), Police Commissioner of New York City, Assistant Secretary to the Navy, Colonel of the Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War, Governor of New York, and finally Vice-President. In each case, he worked against corruption and inequality (although, to be fair, when he was in the Navy Department, he really worked inciting the Spanish-American War — thank goodness they sank the Maine before he could do something on his own).

Other facts of note: he once met one of my favorite authors, Bram Stoker. And Stoker saw what he was about to become:

After watching Roosevelt in action at a literary dinner-table, and afterwarad dispensing summary justice in the police courts, Stoker wrote in his diary: “Must be President some day. A man you can’t cajole, can’t frighten, can’t buy.” [514]

And this just made me laugh:

Aware that his audience contained a large proportion of college boys, he warned against the seductions of “the visionary social reformer … the being who reads Tolstoy, or, if he possesses less intellect, Bellamy and Henry George, who studies Karl Marx and Proudhon, and believes that at this stage of the world’s progress it is possible to make everyone happy by an immense social revolution, just as other enthusiasts of a similar mental calbier believe in the possibility of constructing a perpetual-motion machine.” [553]

I know, I know, not particularly funny by itself, right? But if you’re me, and you can recite the history of The Simpsons better than you can that of the Presidents, then you immediately cut to Homer, sitting in bed, and then calling for Lisa to lambast her perpetual-motion machine. (Hey! There’s a video of this on the internets now!)

Finally, here is the best description of Roosevelt’s personality I think anyone would ever be able to find:

[Roosevelt’s] personality was cyclonic, in that he tended to become unstable in times of low pressure. The slightest rise in the barometer outside, and his turbulence smoothed into a whirl of coordinated activity, while a core of stillness developed within. Under maximum pressure Roosevelt was sunny, calm, and unnaturally clear. [603]

He was a man to admire, and honestly, I am looking forward to reading the other two books in the series.

But not right now. Dudes, it was 741 pages long! It took me a whole month to read it! This was the only book I read last month, I have to do something to get my numbers back up.

Grade for The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt: 4 stars

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